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Visualizing the Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface



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Visualizing the Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface

Visualizing the Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface

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There is little doubt that human activity has impacted the Earth, but to what extent?

As it turns out, nearly 95% of the Earth’s surface shows some form of human modification, with 85% bearing evidence of multiple forms of human impact.

This map by data scientist Hannah Ker outlines the extent of humanity’s modification on terrestrial land ecosystems.

Measuring the Human Impact

This map relies on the Global Human Modification of Terrestrial Systems data set, which tracks the physical extent of 13 anthropogenic stressors across five categories.

  1. Human settlement: population density, built‐up areas
  2. Agriculture: cropland, livestock
  3. Transportation: major roads, minor roads, two tracks, railroads
  4. Mining and energy production: mining, oil wells, wind turbines
  5. Electrical infrastructure: powerlines, nighttime lights

Researchers compiled all these stress factors and scaled their impact from 0 to 1. Then, in order to map the impacts spatially, the surface of land was organized into cells of 1 kilometer in length creating “edges” of varying impact.

These impacts are further organized by biomes—distinct biological communities that have formed in response to a shared physical climate.

Digging into the Data

Only 5% of the world’s lands are unaffected by humans, which amounts to nearly 7 million km² of the Earth’s land, and 44% (59 million km²) is categorized as low modification.

The remainder of land has a moderate to high degree of modification: with 34% categorized as moderate (46 million km²), 13% categorized as high (17 million km²), and 4% categorized as very high modification (5.5 million km²). This latter category is the most visible on the map, with portions of China, India, and Italy serving as focal points.

Below is a look at how Earth’s various biomes fare under this ranking system:

Visualizing the Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface

Out of the 14 biomes studied, the least modified biomes are tundra, boreal forests, deserts, temperate coniferous forests, and montane grasslands. Tropical dry broadleaf forests, temperate broadleaf forests, Mediterranean forests, mangroves, and temperate grasslands are the most modified biomes.

Dense human settlements, agricultural land uses, networks of infrastructure, and industrial activities dominate the more highly modified biomes. These lands are commonly subject to five or more human stressors simultaneously, threatening naturally-occurring ecosystem services.

What are Ecosystem Services?

An ecosystem service is any positive benefit that wildlife or ecosystems provide to people, and they can be sorted into four categories:

  1. Provisioning Services: This is the primary benefit of nature. Humans derive their food, water, and resources from nature.
  2. Regulating: Plants clean air and filter water, tree roots help to keep soil in place to prevent erosion, bees pollinate flowers, and bacterial colonies help to decompose waste.
  3. Cultural Services: Humans have long interacted with the “wild” and it in turn has influenced our social, intellectual, and cultural development. However, the built environment of a city or town separates man from nature and ancient patterns of life. Ecosystems have long served as inspiration for music, art, architecture, and recreation.
  4. Supporting Services: Ecosystems contain the fundamental natural processes that make life possible such as photosynthesis, nutrient cycling, soil creation, and the water cycle. These natural processes bring the Earth to life. Without these supporting services, provisional, regulating, and cultural services wouldn’t exist.

A Delicate Balance

With each encroachment upon habitat, the potential increases for humans to inadvertently upset the careful balance of ecosystem services that have nourished the processes of life on Earth.

As we become more aware of the human impact on the plant, we can make smarter decisions about how our society and economies function—ultimately ensuring that the same ecosystem services are there for future generations.

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Ranked: Nuclear Power Production, by Country

Nuclear power accounted for 10% of global electricity generated in 2020. Here’s a look at the largest nuclear power producers.



Nuclear Power Production by Country

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Nearly 450 reactors around the world supply various nations with nuclear power, combining for about 10% of the world’s electricity, or about 4% of the global energy mix.

But while some countries are turning to nuclear as a clean energy source, nuclear energy generation overall has seen a slowdown since its peak in the 1990s.

The above infographic breaks down nuclear electricity generation by country in 2020 using data from the Power Reactor Information System (PRIS).

Ranked: The Top 15 Countries for Nuclear Power

Just 15 countries account for more than 91% of global nuclear power production. Here’s how much energy these countries produced in 2020:

RankCountryNumber of Operating ReactorsNuclear Electricity Supplied
% share
#1U.S. 🇺🇸96789,91930.9%
#2China 🇨🇳50344,74813.5%
#3France 🇫🇷58338,67113.3%
#4Russia 🇷🇺39201,8217.9%
#5South Korea 🇰🇷24152,5836.0%
#6Canada 🇨🇦1992,1663.6%
#7Ukraine 🇺🇦1571,5502.8%
#8Germany 🇩🇪660,9182.4%
#9Spain 🇪🇸755,8252.2%
#10Sweden 🇸🇪747,3621.9%
#11U.K. 🇬🇧1545,6681.8%
#12Japan 🇯🇵3343,0991.7%
#13India 🇮🇳2240,3741.6%
#14Belgium 🇧🇪732,7931.3%
#15Czechia 🇨🇿628,3721.1%
Rest of the World 🌎44207,3408.1%

In the U.S., nuclear power produces over 50% of the country’s clean electricity. Additionally, 88 of the country’s 96 operating reactors in 2020 received approvals for a 20-year life extension.

China, the world’s second-largest nuclear power producer, is investing further in nuclear energy in a bid to achieve its climate goals. The plan, which includes building 150 new reactors by 2035, could cost as much as $440 billion.

On the other hand, European opinions on nuclear energy are mixed. Germany is the eighth-largest on the list but plans to shutter its last operating reactor in 2022 as part of its nuclear phase-out. France, meanwhile, plans to expand its nuclear capacity.

Which Countries Rely Most on Nuclear Energy?

Although total electricity generation is useful for a high-level global comparison, it’s important to remember that there are some smaller countries not featured above where nuclear is still an important part of the electricity mix.

Here’s a breakdown based on the share of nuclear energy in a country’s electricity mix:

RankCountryNuclear Share of Electricity Mix
#1France 🇫🇷70.6%
#2Slovakia 🇸🇰53.1%
#3Ukraine 🇺🇦51.2%
#4Hungary 🇭🇺48.0%
#5Bulgaria 🇧🇬40.8%
#6Belgium 🇧🇪39.1%
#7Slovenia 🇸🇮37.8%
#8Czechia 🇨🇿37.3%
#9Armenia 🇦🇲34.5%
#10Finland 🇫🇮33.9%
#11Switzerland 🇨🇭32.9%
#12Sweden 🇸🇪29.8%
#13South Korea 🇰🇷29.6%
#14Spain 🇪🇸22.2%
#15Russia 🇷🇺20.6%
#16Romania 🇷🇴19.9%
#17United States 🇺🇸19.7%
#18Canada 🇨🇦14.6%
#19United Kingdom 🇬🇧14.5%
#20Germany 🇩🇪11.3%

European countries dominate the leaderboard with 14 of the top 15 spots, including France, where nuclear power is the country’s largest source of electricity.

It’s interesting to note that only a few of these countries are top producers of nuclear in absolute terms. For example, in Slovakia, nuclear makes up 53.6% of the electricity mix—however, the country’s four reactors make up less than 1% of total global operating capacity.

On the flipside, the U.S. ranks 17th by share of nuclear power in its mix, despite producing 31% of global nuclear electricity in 2020. This discrepancy is largely due to size and population. European countries are much smaller and produce less electricity overall than larger countries like the U.S. and China.

The Future of Nuclear Power

The nuclear power landscape is constantly changing.

There were over 50 additional nuclear reactors under construction in 2020, and hundreds more are planned primarily in Asia.

As countries turn away from fossil fuels and embrace carbon-free energy sources, nuclear energy might see a resurgence in the global energy mix despite the phase-outs planned in several countries around the globe.

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Mapped: 30 Years of Deforestation and Forest Growth, by Country

Where are the world’s forests still shrinking, and where are they seeing net gains? We map deforestation by country between 1990-2020.



Global Deforestation and Forest Growth over 30 Years

Forests are the great carbon capturers of our planet, and they are a key source of wildlife habitats and vital resources for people around the world.

But deforestation is threatening this natural infrastructure, releasing carbon into the atmosphere while simultaneously reducing wildlife diversity and making our environment more susceptible to environmental disasters.

This graphic looks at global deforestation and forest growth over the past 30 years, mapping out the net forest change by country and region using data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The State of Deforestation by Region

Today, forests make up around 31% of the Earth’s total land area, spanning 15.68 million square miles (40.6 million km²). Over the past three decades, the world lost a bit more than 4% (685,300 square miles) of its forests, which equates to an area about half the size of India.

Europe and Asia were the only two regions which had significant overall forest growth during this time period, while Oceania saw no significant change and North and Central America saw a slight reduction.

RegionForest area change (1990-2020)Percentage change in forest area
Asia+146,718 sq mi+6.64%
Europe+88,803 sq mi+2.34%
Oceania+1,057 sq mi+0.0015%
North America and Central America-7,722 sq mi-0.34%
South America and the Caribbean-501,932 sq mi-13.30%
Africa-409,268 sq mi-14.29%
Global total-685,401 sq mi-4.19%

Source: UN Food and Agriculture Organization

Africa along with South America and the Caribbean were the regions with the greatest amount of net forest loss, both losing more than 13% of their forests over the past 30 years. This is largely because these two regions have large amounts of forest area available, with the underlying land in high demand for agriculture and cattle-raising.

Although the overall forest loss around the world is massive, the rate of forest loss has slowed down over the past three decades. While an average of 30,116 square miles were lost each year between 1990 to 2000, between 2010 to 2020 that number has dropped to 18,146 square miles, showing that the rate of overall loss has fallen by almost 40%.

The Countries and Drivers of Deforestation and Forest Growth

Despite an overall slowing down of forest loss, certain countries in South America along with the entirety of Africa are still showing an increase in the rate of forest loss. It’s in these regions where most of the countries with the largest reduction in forest area are located:

CountryNet change in forest area (1990-2020)Percentage change in forest area
Brazil-356,287 sq mi-15.67%
Indonesia-101,977 sq mi-22.28%
Democratic Republic of the Congo-94,495 sq mi-16.25%
Angola-48,865 sq mi-15.97%
Tanzania-44,962 sq mi-20.29%
Myanmar-41,213 sq mi-27.22%
Paraguay-36,463 sq mi-36.97%
Bolivia-26,915 sq mi-12.06%
Mozambique-25,614 sq mi-15.29%
Argentina-25,602 sq mi-18.84%

Source: UN Food and Agriculture Organization

Brazil, home to most of the Amazon rainforest, saw 356,287 square miles of net forest loss, largely fueled by farmers using the land to raise cattle for beef. It’s estimated that 80% of the deforested land area of the Amazon has been replaced with pastures, with the resulting beef production known to be among the worst meats for the environment in terms of carbon emissions.

The other great driver of deforestation is seed and palm oil agriculture. These oils account for about 20% of the world’s deforestation carbon emissions, and their production concentrated in Indonesia and Malaysia is now expanding to other Asian countries along with Africa.

While the demand for beef and palm oils drives deforestation, initiatives like the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI) are providing incentives to protect forest land.

Select countries in the European Union along with the United Kingdom and South Korea have committed $494.7 million to six central African nations (Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and the Republic of Congo) for them to preserve their forests and pursue low emission pathways for sustainable development. The initiative has seen $202 million transferred thus far and an anticipated reduction of 75 million tons of CO2 emissions.

Forests and the Climate Crisis

It’s estimated that forests absorb around 30% of the world’s carbon emissions each year, making them the greatest and most important carbon sinks we have on land. When you pair this with the fact that deforestation contributes around 12% of annual greenhouse gas emissions, the importance of forest preservation becomes even more clear.

But we often forget how much forests protect our environment by acting as natural buffers against extreme weather. Forests increase and ensure rainfall security, making nearby land areas significantly less susceptible to wildfires and natural droughts in hot and dry seasons along with flooding and landslides in wet seasons.

With every dollar invested in landscape restoration yielding up to $30 in benefits, reducing deforestation and investing in reforestation is considered an effective way to reduce the difficulty and costs of meeting climate and environmental protection goals. This is without even considering the benefits of maintaining the world’s largest wildlife habitat and source of species diversity, the home of the nearly 70 million indigenous people who live in forests, and the livelihood of 1.6 billion people who rely on forests every day.

Preserving and Regrowing Forests for the Future

Despite the short-term acceleration in forest loss seen in 2020, there have been positive signs about forest regrowth coming to light. A recent study found that previously deforested land can recuperate its soil fertility in about a decade, and layered plants, trees, and species diversity can recover in around 25-60 years.

Along with this, in some instances these regrowing “secondary forests” can absorb more carbon dioxide than “primary forests”, giving hope that a global reforestation effort can absorb more emissions than previously thought possible.

From better financial incentives for local farmers and ranchers to preserve forest area to larger scale policies and initiatives like CAFI, curbing deforestation and promoting reforestation requires a global effort. Reversing forest loss in the coming decades is a daunting but necessary step towards stabilizing the climate and preserving the environment that billions of animals and people rely on.

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